Monday, August 18, 2014

2014 season preview: NC State Wolfpack


Schedule:

8/30: Georgia Southern
9/6: Old Dominion
9/13: @ South Florida
9/20: Presbyterian
9/27: Florida State
10/4: @ Clemson
10/11: Boston College
10/18: @ Louisville
10/25: BYE
11/1: @ Syracuse
11/8: Georgia Tech
11/15: Wake Forest
11/22: BYE
11/29: @ North Carolina

Skip: Duke, Miami, Pittsburgh, Virginia, Virginia Tech

Louisiana Tech: W, 40-14
Richmond: W, 23-21
Clemson: L, 26-14
Central Michigan: W, 48-14
Wake Forest: L, 28-13
Syracuse: L, 24-10
Florida State: L, 49-17
North Carolina: L, 27-19
Duke: L, 38-20
Boston College: L, 38-21
East Carolina: L, 42-28
Maryland: L, 41-21

Record: 3-9 (0-8); 7th, Atlantic

Projected starters:

QB: Jacoby Brissett (rJr.)
RB: Shadrach Thornton (Jr.)
WR: Bryan Underwood (5Sr.)
WR: Jumichael Ramos (So.)
WR: Bo Hines (Fr.)
TE: David Grinnage (rSo.)
LT: Rob Crisp (5Sr.)
LG: Joe Thuney (rJr.)
C: Quinton Schooley (Jr.)
RG: Alex Barr (rJr.)
RT: Tyson Chandler (5Sr.)

DE: Art Norman (5Sr.)
DT: Thomas Teal (5Sr.)
DT: Monty Nelson (So.)
DE: Mike Rose (rJr.)
WLB: Brandon Pittman (Sr.)
MLB: Jerod Fernandez (rFr.)
CB: Jack Tocho (So.)
CB: Juston Burris (rJr.)
S: Tim Buckley (rJr.)
SS: Hakim Jones (rJr.)
FS: Jarvis Byrd (6Sr.)

K: Niklas Sade (Sr.)
P: Wil Baumann (Sr.)

(Italics indicate new starter.)

Coach: Dave Doeren (2nd season)

Media prediction: 5th, Atlantic

All-ACC:

2013 1st team: none
2013 2nd team: none
2013 3rd team: none
2013 HM: LB Robert Caldwell, K Niklas Sade
2014 preseason: none

(Italics indicate departed player.)

Thank goodness for NC State.  Dave Doeren's first year at the helm went not so great, and the Wolfpack shared the distinction of an ACC goose egg with UVA.  NC State's season went awfully similar to ours - win a few early and then watch in disbelief as the losing continues without end.  The challenge continues this season.  After a nonconference schedule that shouldn't be particularly hard, NC State opens the ACC season with FSU and Clemson.

-- Offense

The big deal with NC State this year, and the source of half their optimism, is new starting QB Jacoby Brissett.  Since transferring in from Florida after the 2012 season, Brissett has been halfway anointed as the 2014 starter.  As a Gator he did a passable job in limited time, but in Raleigh the job is his to sink or swim with.  ESPN figured the Pack to have the 4th-best QB situation in the conference, so the expectations are piled pretty high.

NC State will have its workhorse tailback Shadrach Thornton back on the team after a few run-ins with Doeren's doghouse this offseason.  Thornton has had a run-in or two with the law and can't afford to slip up again, or NC State will be left with a fairly unpalatable slate of options.  Thornton himself isn't flashy, but he proved capable of carrying the load last year; without him, the Pack would turn to Matt Dayes, who had his moments last year as a freshman, or the increasingly marginalized and uninspiring Tony Creecy.  Neither strike fear in opponents.

If there are any playmakers, they'll be found at receiver.  Bryan Underwood is a steady veteran presence at the top of the depth chart, who flashes some big-play ability at times.  Jumichael Ramos quietly had a strong season last year, as did Marquez Valdez-Scantling, both as true freshmen playing in a unit dominated by upperclassmen.  NC State also really likes what they see out of true freshman Bo Hines, who had a breakout performance in the Pack's spring game.

The good news for NC State on the line is that they return a full slate of starters; the bad news is, this line wasn't very good last year.  They were a revolving door against the pass rush, allowing nearly three sacks a game, and failing to open many holes in the run game.  Still, there's something to be said for a great deal of continuity.  Particularly at center, where Quinton Schooley didn't miss a single snap in 2013.  Left tackle Rob Crisp is a talented player, but has dealt with injuries his whole career.  NC State's O-line will definitely get a boost if Crisp can put together a full senior season.  Tyson Chandler has been a familiar presence at right tackle, entering his third season as a starter there.  Chandler is a massive road-grading presence at 345 pounds.  Alex Barr stepped in as the right guard starter in the third game of 2013 and didn't let go of the spot, and Joe Thuney is a versatile player who's seen time both inside and out along the line; he figures to be the left guard by default, barring any further shuffling.

We'll see how up to the task Brissett is; he's gotten a fair amount of hype so far.  Brissett is a big, linebacker-sized guy with decent mobility; he possesses most, if not all, of the necessary physical tools.  By himself he could be worth a few extra wins, if the production matches the hype.  The line needs to do a better job keeping him free of grass stains, but I like the continuity they have, and there's some playmaking potential among his receiving corps.

-- Defense

NC State had the worst run defense in the ACC last year, and were the only team to allow more than five yards a carry, so naturally, they switched to a base 4-2-5 nickel package this year.  Teams are starting to do more and more of this to combat the proliferation of passing spreads; NC State also has depth issues at linebacker, particularly with prospective MLB starter M.J. Salahuddin out likely for the year with a training camp injury.  The all-important Mike position now falls to redshirt freshman Jerod Fernandez.  Nobody expected to play that position has so much as a single college snap under their belts.  The outside, at least, has experience, with two seniors manning the weak-side spot in Brandon Pittman and Rodman Noel.  Pittman was a very steady presence last year, and Noel does have a few starts to his name as well.

Up front, NC State continues to have plenty of depth.  Thomas Teal is a playmaking defensive tackle, and Monty Nelson was a pleasant surprise in his freshman season last year as well.  T.Y. McGill also returns to give the Pack a solid three-man rotation in the middle.  Teal also has the versatility to play end.  NC State has at least one decent returning starter in Art Norman for the end; they'll lean on promoted reserve Mike Rose for the other side.  NC State's line put up good individual numbers, but it needs to improve on that five yard a carry number.

At safety, the Pack get Jarvis Byrd back for a sixth season after he suffered his third(!) career ACL tear last season.  Byrd was good enough way back in 2009 to play his way into the starting lineup as a true freshman, but over a five year career he's played in a grand total of 14 games, the result of all those popped ACLs and one quad injury.  Hakim Jones had a good debut as a starter last year, making 61 tackles from his strong safety position, intercepting two passes and breaking up eight more.  Jack Tocho stepped in at cornerback as a true freshman in 2013, when Byrd went down and Dontae Johnson was moved to safety to cover; Tocho also registered a pair of picks and outplayed his counterpart Juston Burris.  NC State's pass defense didn't benefit from a productive pass rush and still wasn't sitting at the bottom of the conference last year, so putting another DB on the field might not be the worst decision.

Still, the depth issues at linebacker are not a new problem; they've been going on for a while now, and I really like the individual production that NC State has gotten out of their D-line but the overall result was fairly hideous.  They do need to pick it up and get more pressure on quarterbacks, having failed to produce much in the way of sacks last year - just 20 as a team.  There's room for improvement, but like the O-line, the continuity is (mostly) there to help it happen.

-- Special teams

Niklas Sade is one of the better kickers in the conference and happens to be NC State's only returning player to get any votes in all-ACC voting last year.  Wil Baumann posted a 42.1 yard punting average last year.  Both these players made huge strides over 2012 and figure to give NC State a good kicking game in their senior seasons.

-- Outlook

The OOC slate is anything but scary; the only team that even closely resembles a big-time-ish program is South Florida - a 2-10 team last year.  It'll probably be ODU that actually provides the biggest test; the point is that NC State is highly likely to start the season 4-0.  They're equally likely to start the season 4-2, with the two hardest ACC games on the schedule out of the way early.  The question then becomes, can they find two wins in the next six games?  Probably can.  Last year's results offer plenty of reason to doubt, but I think it'd be underperforming and a failure to play to potential if NC State can't get back to the postseason this year.  NC State should wrap up bowl eligibility somewhere in the three-game November stretch of Cuse, GT, and Wake.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

2014 season preview: North Carolina Tar Heels


Schedule:

8/30: Liberty
9/6: San Diego State
9/13: BYE
9/20: @ East Carolina
9/27: @ Clemson
10/4: Virginia Tech
10/11: @ Notre Dame
10/18: Georgia Tech
10/25: @ Virginia
11/1: @ Miami
11/8: BYE
11/15: Pittsburgh
11/20: @ Duke (Thu.)
11/29: NC State

Skip: Boston College, Florida State, Louisville, Syracuse, Wake Forest

2013 results:

South Carolina: L, 27-10
Middle Tennesee: W, 40-20
Georgia Tech: L, 28-20
East Carolina: L, 55-31
Virginia Tech: L, 27-17
Miami: L, 27-23
Boston College: W, 34-10
NC State: W, 27-19
Virginia: W, 45-14
Pittsburgh: W, 34-27
Old Dominion: W, 80-20
Duke: L, 27-25
Cincinnati: W, 39-17

Record: 7-6 (4-4); 5th, Coastal

Projected starters:

QB: Marquise Williams (rJr.)
RB: T.J. Logan (So.)
WR: Quinshad Davis (Jr.)
WR: Ryan Switzer (So.)
WR: Bug Howard (So.)
TE: Jack Tabb (Sr.)
LT: John Ferranto (rSo.)
LG: Caleb Peterson (rSo.)
C: Lucas Crowley (So.)
RG: Landon Turner (rJr.)
RT: Jon Heck (rSo.)

DE: Junior Gnonkonde (rSo.)
DT: Ethan Farmer (5Sr.)
DT: Justin Thomason (Jr.)
BDE: Norkeithus Otis (Sr.)
WLB: Travis Hughes (Sr.)
MLB: Nathan Staub (rSo.)
CB: Brian Walker (So.)
CB: Des Lawrence (rSo.)
RS: Malik Simmons (Jr.)
SS: Dominique Green (So.)
FS: Tim Scott (Sr.)

K: Thomas Moore (Sr.)
P: Tommy Hibbard (Sr.)

(Italics indicate new starter.)

Media prediction: 4th, Coastal

Coach: Larry Fedora (3rd season)

All-ACC:

2013 1st team: TE Eric Ebron, OT James Hurst, DE Kareem Martin, PR Ryan Switzer
2013 2nd team: S Tre Boston
2013 3rd team: none
2013 HM: WR Quinshad Davis, C Russell Bodine, LB Norkeithus Otis, CB Jabari Price, P Tommy Hibbard
2014 preseason: PR Ryan Switzer

(Italics indicate departed player.)

Miami wasn't the only team putting a black eye on the ACC.  UNC's 2012 season was another postseason ban, but they were free of sanctions last year.  They nearly missed the postseason anyway, getting off to a 1-5 start before reeling off five wins to earn a bowl trip, which they won.  That team underachieved without a doubt.  On paper they had plenty of talent on defense, and no shortage of it on offense either.  This year Carolina is projected by the media as just shy of 1st in the division conference, so another 6-6 regular season might not sit well with UNC fans.

-- Offense

After Bryn Renne's season ended prematurely, Marquise Williams took over under center and did a more than passable job.  His completion percentage could've used a little work, but he did throw 15 TDs against only 6 INTs, and is entering his fourth year in the program, so you'd think he'd easily be the presumptive starter.  You'd be wrong.  Larry Fedora is making Williams work for it, and has opened up the competition to include redshirt freshman Mitch Trubisky.  I'd expect Williams to evenutually win the job - there's a smack of motivational ploy to this deal - but Fedora recruited Trubisky and not Williams, so, who knows?  It's probably not a good sign for UNC that Williams hasn't been able to seize the job outright against someone with two fewer years experience.

Carolina also took a hit this month when receiver T.J. Thorpe, expected to be a big part of the offense, hurt his foot.  Thorpe is out indefinitely, but the receiving corps should be alright.  Quinshad Davis, the team's top wide receiver last year, returns for his junior year.  Davis is a really good one and should come into his own this year now that high-powered tight end Eric Ebron is in the NFL.  The Heels will also expect more out of Ryan Switzer, who returned five punts to the house last year.  Bug Howard had a very solid freshman season in 2013, and UNC also expects Kendrick Singleton to make a contribution, though he caught only six passes last year.  Tight end Jack Tabb should also be a reliable target, now that he's out of Ebron's shadow.

Williams was UNC's leading rusher last year, but freshman T.J. Logan came on in the fifth game of the season and never came out of the lineup.  His role got bigger and bigger, and he ended up leading UNC's running backs in carries and yardage, averaging 5.7 per carry.  Logan himself, though, might be fending off a challenge, as UNC adds Elijah Hood to the roster; Hood was a bona fide five-star recruit, a tremendously powerful running back who reportedly squats over 600 pounds.

Lately we've been going over offensive lines that are strong on the left side and questionable on the right; UNC is the opposite.  Landon Turner is a stalwart at right guard, and often played every snap of a game last year while only a sophomore.  Right tackle Jon Heck won the starting job as a redshirt freshman last year and maintained an iron grip on the job, giving UNC a strong right side that should be around both this year and next.

Left guard is also fine, with Caleb Peterson returning as a starter.  UNC is breaking in a new center, though, with Lucas Crowley having appeared in six games as a freshman last year, and there's no depth behind him.  The all-important left tackle spot belongs for now to John Ferranto, who came on in relief of all-conference tackle James Hurst in the bowl game but is battling a pair of freshmen for the job.

This offense, once again, has plenty of talent to get it through.  If the quarterback battle isn't an ominous sign, then UNC should be in very good shape at the skill positions.  The offensive line is on the thin and inexperienced side once you get past the prospective starting five, but there's useful talent there; Turner could end up as an all-conference pick himself.  The line does need to gel some, and there's always uncertainty with a new center; still, it should be adequate at a minimum.  It's likely the offense that has the media excited about the Heels this season.

-- Defense

That said, a closer look at the defense may have been warranted.  First, the strong points, particularly safety.  UNC runs essentially a 4-2-5, using what they call the Ram safety as a hybrid S/LB.  With Tim Scott moving from corner to safety, UNC has three quality, experienced players at the position.  Dominique Green picked off three passes last year, and Malik Simmons made a successful move from corner to the Ram position.  Though UNC may want to see more production out of Simmons (47 tackles in 2013), they'll have good players here.

At corner, Brian Walker looks ready to step up to a starting role, but Des Lawrence had less extensive playing time, and the rest of the cornerback roster is a bit thin.  Alex Dixon should at least play a decent-sized role as a backup - for the third straight season - but the rest of the depth is mainly freshmen and one converted receiver.  You expect that UNC at least has confidence in their starters if they feel comfortable moving Scott, but there isn't a ton of experience at the position.

At linebacker, UNC returns Travis Hughes and Jeff Schoettmer, who had 76 and 85 tackles last year, respectively.  Coming out of spring, though, Schoettmer was listed as Hughes's backup on the weak side after starting most of 2013 as the middle linebacker.  UNC may return to Schoettmer in the middle, or they may hand the job to the relatively inexperienced Nathan Staub or the even more inexperienced Dan Mastromatteo.

UNC is looking at some conundrums up front though.  Already thin at tackle, UNC lost a prospective starter to academic issues, and now leans on Ethan Farmer as the lone returning DT starter.  Farmer is a solid player, and Justin Thomason should be serviceable at a minimum.  To alleviate the depth issues, Carolina is also working out DE Jessie Rogers in the middle as well, and will likely expect him to work both positions.  Rogers up til this point hasn't done much in his career, totaling 14 tackles in two years.

That leaves the strongside DE position to the still-developing Junior Gnonkonde, who has some potential but is still only a sophomore.  On the other end, the Heels do get back Norkeithus Otis, a productive player who registered 7.5 sacks last year.  Otis will have to produce this year while being the focus of opposing defenses, however, now that Kareem Martin has moved on to the NFL.

Is this defense worthy of a team that's expected to contend very strongly for the division title?  It's got pieces, but it's a little underwhelming, and lacking experience in many places, particularly cornerback and DT.  The whole D-line, actually, other than Otis.  It wasn't a great defense last year (against the run, mainly; it was better against the pass) and it lost quite a few key pieces.  Essentially it's a rebuilding unit, and could struggle.

-- Special teams

Ryan Switzer dazzled last year as a punt returner, getting to the end zone five times.  Very impressive.  Difficult to reproduce, but impressive nonetheless.  Tommy Hibbard is a strong-legged punter boasting a 43-yard average.  Thomas Moore's hold on the placekicking job isn't 100% solid, as he doesn't possess a lot of range and missed two extra points.

-- Outlook

I confess, I'm not as enamored of this team as the media is.  I like the offense if they can nail down a quarterback, but redshirt juniors aren't usually in a dogfight with freshmen.  But the defense has a lot to prove, I think.  This is the Coastal, of course; anything can happen as there's really no favorite here.  And UNC is, at least, a likely bowl team; it'll be an upset if they don't get to six wins, but it's not totally out of the question, either.  I do think, however, that this season will end up somewhat disappointing, unless the defense does a lot of growing up in a hurry.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

2014 season preview: Miami Hurricanes


Schedule:

9/1: @ Louisville (Mon.)
9/6: Florida A&M
9/13: Arkansas State
9/20: @ Nebraska
9/27: Duke
10/4: @ Georgia Tech
10/11: Cincinnati
10/18: BYE
10/23: @ Virginia Tech (Thu.)
11/1: North Carolina
11/8: BYE
11/15: Florida State
11/22: @ Virginia
11/29: Pittsburgh

Skip: Boston College, Clemson, NC State, Syracuse, Wake Forest

2013 results:

Florida Atlantic: W, 34-6
Florida: W, 21-16
Savannah State: W, 77-7
South Florida: W, 49-21
Georgia Tech: W, 45-30
North Carolina: W, 27-23
Wake Forest: W, 24-21
Florida State: L, 41-14
Virginia Tech: L, 42-24
Duke: L, 48-30
Virginia: W, 45-26
Pittsburgh: W, 41-31
Louisville: L, 36-9 (RA Bowl)

Record: 9-4 (5-3); 3rd, Coastal

Projected starters:

QB: Jake Heaps (5Sr.)
RB: Duke Johnson (Jr.)
WR: Phillip Dorsett (Sr.)
WR: Stacy Coley (So.)
WR: Malcolm Lewis (rSo.)
TE: Standish Dobard (So.)
LT: Ereck Flowers (Jr.)
LG: Jon Feliciano (5Sr.)
C: Shane McDermott (5Sr.)
RG: Danny Isidora (rSo.)
RT: Trevor Darling (Fr.)

DE: Anthony Chickillo (Sr.)
DT: Olsen Pierre (Sr.)
DT: Calvin Heurtelou (Jr.)
DE: Trent Harris (Fr.)
OLB: Thurston Armbrister (Sr.)
MLB: Denzel Perryman (Sr.)
OLB: Raphael Kirby (Jr.)
CB: Tracy Howard (Jr.)
CB: Ladarius Gunter (Sr.)
S: Deon Bush (Jr.)
S: Dallas Crawford (rJr.)

K: Matt Goudis (Jr.)
P: Justin Vogel (So.)

(Italics indicate new starter.)

Coach: Al Golden, 4th season

Media prediction: 1st, Coastal

All-ACC:

2013 1st team: LB Denzel Perryman, P Pat O'Donnell
2013 2nd team: RB Duke Johnson, WR Allen Hurns, OG Brandon Linder
2013 3rd team: QB Stephen Morris
2013 HM: OT Seantrel Henderson, OG Jon Feliciano, CB Tracy Howard, S Deon Bush, PR Stacy Coley
2014 preseason: RB Duke Johnson, LB Denzel Perryman

(Italics indicate departed player.)

Al Golden is in his fourth year as coach of the Hurricanes, and it could be a big one.  Golden had them bowl-eligible in each of his first three years, although they chose to self-ban during the first two, following the Nevin Shapiro mess (which seems to have fizzled pretty spectacularly.)  Golden has improved the Canes from 6 to 7 to 9 wins, all in the regular season as they also fizzled pretty spectacularly in last year's bowl game.  This looks like an important year for Golden - if he can continue the upward trajectory (which doesn't have to necessarily mean beating nine wins) then considering Miami a rejuvenated force - albeit not quite the unstoppable powerhouse of the past - in the Coastal Conference would be unavoidable.

-- Offense

Quite a bit here is reasonably well-settled, and the Canes bring some exciting talent to the table.  RB Duke Johnson piled up 920 yards in just eight games last year, which is even more impressive than it sounds because if he'd been allowed to run wild in certain of those games (Savannah State, for example) he'd have made it easy.  Johnson looks easily like the top running back in the league; he's fast (though not an all-out home run hitter) and very hard to bring down, running powerfully with a low center of gravity.  Johnson is likely to get workhorse-level carries this year, if healthy, and should blow past the 1,000-yard mark with no trouble.

Miami also looks to be in good shape at receiver.  Phillip Dorsett had an excellent 2012 season as a sophomore, but was slowed by nagging injuries last year and slipped to just 13 catches, 45 fewer than the previous season.  But he also averaged almost 21 yards a reception.  The real excitement, though, surrounds Stacy Coley, an explosive player who made his mark returning punts last year and ran for a 73-yard touchdown, too.  The story of the electric return man who couldn't translate his skills to pass-catching is a familiar one, but Coley has a strong freshman season of 33 catches and 591 yards to build on, and looks to be on his way.  Depth is a little light in the receiving corps, but reserve Herb Waters returns (28 catches, 406 yards in 2013) and Miami also thinks redshirt sophomore Malcolm Lewis is ready for prime time.

The thing everyone's focusing on, though, is the question of who'll throw to them.  Miami was ready to hand the ball to senior Ryan Williams, who'd been patiently waiting his turn and playing respectably well in limited chances, but Williams tore his ACL.  Then, backup Kevin Olsen got suspended for the opener, reportedly for a failed drug test.  Olsen appears to have lost his chance for this season, and Miami has turned the competition over to senior journeyman Jake Heaps (who has played in the past for BYU and Kansas) and true freshman Brad Kaaya.  Kaaya has been earning rave reviews in camp for his poise and presence, but it's sometimes tempered with "for a freshman" and noted that Heaps is still ahead in this regard.  Neither has been with the Canes more than a few weeks, though, and the competition is still way up in the air.

The other main competition in camp is on the right side of the line.  The left and middle are well entrenched.  Ereck Flowers nailed down the left tackle job last season, and Jon Feliciano earned some all-ACC votes for his play at left guard; both return, as does longtime center starter Shane Mitchell.  The right side is less settled.  Danny Isidora is seen as the heir apparent at left guard, and the Canes have high hopes for him, while Alex Gall is considered versatile enough to play both guard and center and could make Isidora look over his shoulder a bit.  Right tackle is the big question spot.  Trevor Gadbois, a huge player at 6'8", 316, is the experienced contender (relatively) but he's in danger of being supplanted by a true freshman, perhaps Trevor Darling or the high-profile, heavily-offered KC McDermott.  Even with Darling sitting on top of the first fall depth chart offered up by the Canes, a lot of Canes fans think it's only a matter of time before McDermott plays his way into the job.

As with always, it's all about the quarterbacking.  Miami has some weapons in Johnson and Coley that they'll happily put up against anyone in the conference, and an experienced line for the most part.  They're not going to maximize their potential if they let the QB competition drag on, though.  If Heaps or Kaaya can separate from the other, Miami will be in great shape.  If not, they'll still be decent, but like a V6 engine running on four cylinders.

-- Defense

The defense was what held Miami back last year and prevented them from pulling out a berth in the ACCCG, and the same challenge remains.  Depth up front was a concern in 2013 and nothing's changed for 2014.  There are a couple building blocks here; end Anthony Chickillo and tackle Olsen Pierre are solid if unspectacular players.  Chickillo is the top playmaker on the front line, but he's not a holy terror.  Miami also likes to use Tyriq McCord at end in passing situations, and he led the team in sacks last year with four but did little else.  The Canes brought in juco transfer Calvin Heurtelou to shore up the defensive tackle position, and he looks like the front-runner to start next to Pierre, with Ufomba Kamalu likely to see his role increase and be the third in the rotation.  Behind those three, though, there's frightfully little experience.  Miami will probably also lean on some freshmen, particularly at DE; early enrollee Trent Harris is listed as the starter in front of McCord for now, and Chad Thomas comes in as a five-star recruit and the #2 high school DE in the country.

The defense will be led by Denzel Perryman from the middle linebacker slot.  Perryman can play outside or in, and moves back to the middle this year following the graduation of Jimmy Gaines and a season in which Perryman led the Canes in tackles with 108.  Part-time starter Thurston Armbrister also returns to man one outside slot; the other is being turned over to Raphael Kirby, who's been primarily a special-teamer before now.  Perryman is a great starting point, but the depth and experience drops off a cliff after him and Armbrister.  The second string is made up of freshmen, special-teamers, and walk-ons; of the options coming after the three starters, undersized walk-on Nantambu-Akil Fentress is the most experienced and accomplished, having made nine tackles last year.

Miami's depth in the defensive backfield took a big hit with the announcement that starting safety Rayshawn Jenkins would miss the season with an undisclosed injury.  This'll be another position where the Canes are awfully thin on experience after the starters.  Deon Bush started three games last year and was productive as the third safety, and the Canes have moved Dallas Crawford from running back to fill Jenkins's spot.  It's less dire than it sounds - Crawford is a natural safety who was moved to tailback for depth reasons, and now goes back to a position he's more comfortable with (despite the fact that he had some success on offense.)  Still, Crawford is likely to be rusty.  With so little behind these two - again, special-teamers, scout-teamers, and freshmen - one of the more experienced backup corners like Antonio Crawford might move over to bring some depth.

Last year, it was safety that looked to be in decent shape while cornerback was scary - this year, it's the opposite, as Tracy Howard forced his way into the lineup and produced four interceptions while Ladarius Gunter fought off competition to cement his starting role.  Gunter intercepted three passes and broke up nine more.  There should be some decent playable depth here, too, as Artie Burns and the aforementioned Crawford each picked off a pass while playing as reserves.

Still, overall this defense is still a rebuilding project, as Golden largely tore it down for its own good (he dismissed a few high-profile but misbehaving players from the unit) in his first year and has been remaking it since.  The defense did a poor job against the run and was only marginally better against the pass, and when Miami lost they lost big.  They certainly can't afford any more injuries, because there are huge drop-offs from the already somewhat marginal starting unit.

-- Special teams

Kicker Matt Goudis was reliable last year from short range but shaky once he got past 40 yards.  There's a competition on for the punting job, in which Justin Vogel looks to have the upper hand, but nobody is going to replace Pat O'Donnell's incredible 47.1 yard average.

-- Outlook

Of 13 ACC team previews last year, the Miami one was probably the most spot-on; the cliff notes is that they ought to improve on seven wins and go bowling, but not contend strongly for the Coastal championship because defense.  Lo and behold, it came to pass precisely as such.  The Canes started out strongly but crashed out of the race with three consecutive 40-point clunkers allowed by the defense, one of which made the notoriously inaccurate Logan Thomas look like Peyton Manning in a tank.

Well, for 2014, nothing has changed.  The offense has a few chinks showing but is more or less well-equipped to handle the season, especially if the quarterback thing shakes out.  The test for Golden is going to be this defense.  It's got some pieces in the right places, but is one of the woefully thinnest units in the league, and lacks playmakers (except, perhaps, at cornerback and middle linebacker.  And even then, Perryman is more of a right-place-right-time player than a stat-sheet lighter-upper.)  Everyone in the whole Coastal is loaded with flaws, so I won't say Miami can't come out on top.  It's there for the taking.  But for Golden to take the next step with this program, and keep their momentum trending positively, he's got to pull off some surprises on defense or else head back to the RA Bowl.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

catching up

Let's pretend for a minute that this is a UVA blog and that we should talk about a few UVA things that have gone on.  Not training camp, mostly; it's never been my style to ruthlessly dissect every nugget, because most of them are the same claptrap every year.  Defensive coordinators talk about their aggressive defense; somebody is "really making his mark" and then promptly disappears the moment the games begin; the schemes are "adding new wrinkles" or "focusing on the basics" and either is an improvement.  Like clockwork.  I prefer to wait til it's all over and then sift through the results.  So maybe a few football things, but not all.

-- The Maryland lawsuit saga is finally over, with both sides agreeing basically not to bother each other any more and no more money changing hands.  The ACC has withheld about $31 million, and agreed not to go after any more in exchange for Maryland not trying to get any of it back.  One Sabreite theorizes, based on whatever source he has, that the settlement has to do with a future ACC Network, and the lawsuit being a real drag on those plans because the ACC would've had a hard time calling itself damaged by the loss of Maryland while at the same time firing up the money machine.  

That may be, but I have a simpler (albeit not mutually exclusive) theory: now that Maryland's officially gone, collecting any further damages requires actually being written a check by Maryland rather than simply not giving them any money.  This was unlikely to happen without an order from whatever was the highest court that deigned to hear the case following the usual lineup of appeals, which means that if the ACC really wanted to pursue this, they probably weren't getting paid until like 2018.  Maryland's case was always tenuous and slightly nonsensical - it was based on the idea that since they didn't vote for the higher exit fee they shouldn't have to pay it.  Accepting that argument would more or less require any private organization to have unanimous consent of its members to do anything at all, so it was bound to go nowhere fast.  Maryland had an excellent incentive to just let the whole thing drop.

-- I include this football article mainly to point out the likelihood that the Hoos will have neither Dominique Terrell nor Jay Whitmire this coming year.  Best guess: the coaches will do everything they can to get Whitmire in the lineup only if they get the notion that he won't get a medical redshirt (which would give him a 6th year of eligibilty.)  If they think he can get the NCAA waiver, he'll sit the year.

-- This is an excellent article, I think, on freshman guard B.J. Stith.  B.J. has some unique challenges in front of him, following in dad Bryant's footsteps at UVA, and you really get the impression that both of them understand the nature of it.  And that B.J. is more than mature enough to handle it.

-- Speaking of handling things, Evan Nolte went out and did silly college things and we now get to know about it because he's a basketball player and not just some dude.  Actually the story is sort of funny.  CPD went easy on him, which is nice.

-- ESPN released their "Big Monday" schedule (I think Monday's kind of an annoying day for the big weekly hoops showcase, but whatever) and guess who leads the ACC in appearances?  UVA has games featured against UNC, Pitt, and Syracuse.  Only UNC has as many as three games featured.  Duke and UNC will still have their rivalry hyped to the moon and back, but still.

-- Cleveland is becoming the home of UVA sportsters of all types.  Tim Smith signed with the Browns last week; this sees him join Joe Harris, of course with the Cavaliers, and Kyle Crockett pitching for the Indians with Mike Papi in the Indians' system with middle-A Lake County.  Smith's chances of making the Browns' final roster are certainly slim, but exposure is exposure.

Cleveland is all well and good, but personally I'm having even more fun following the exploits of Artie Lewicki (middle-A West Michigan) and Whit Mayberry (high-A Lakeland) in the Tigers' system.  Both are pitching very, very well, in case you were wondering.


2014 season preview: Louisville Cardinals


Schedule:

9/1: Miami (Mon.)
9/6: Murray State
9/13: @ Virginia
9/20: @ Florida Int'l
9/27: Wake Forest
10/3: @ Syracuse (Fri.)
10/11: @ Clemson
10/18: NC State
10/25: BYE
10/30: Florida State (Thu.)
11/8: @ Boston College
11/15: BYE
11/22: @ Notre Dame
11/29: Kentucky

Skip: Duke, Georgia Tech, North Carolina, Pittsburgh, Virginia Tech

2013 results:

Ohio: W, 49-7
Eastern Kentucky: W, 44-7
Kentucky: W, 27-13
Florida Int'l: W, 72-0
Temple: W, 30-7
Rutgers: W, 24-10
Central Florida: L, 38-35
South Florida: W, 34-3
Connecticut: W, 31-10
Houston: W, 20-13
Memphis: W, 24-17
Cincinnati: W, 31-24
Miami: W, 36-9 (RA Bowl)

Record: 12-1 (7-1); 2nd, AAC

Projected starters:

QB: Will Gardner (rSo.)
RB: Dominique Brown (5Sr.)
WR: DeVante Parker (Sr.)
WR: Eli Rogers (Sr.)
WR: Michaelee Harris (5Sr.)
TE: Gerald Christian (5Sr.)
LT: Jamon Brown (Sr.)
LG: John Miller (Sr.)
C: Jake Smith (5Sr.)
RG: Ryan Mack (rJr.)
RT: Kelby Johnson (Jr.)

DE: Sheldon Rankins (Jr.)
NT: DeAngelo Brown (rSo.)
DE: B.J. DuBose (5Sr.)
SLB: Deiontrez Mount (Sr.)
ILB: Nick Dawson-Brents (rSo.)
ILB: James Burgess (Jr.)
WLB: Lorenzo Mauldin (Sr.)
CB: Charles Gaines (rJr.)
CB: Terrell Floyd (Sr.)
SS: Gerod Holliman (rSo.)
FS: Jarrod Barnes (rSo.)

K: John Wallace (rJr.)
P: Ryan Johnson (5Sr.)

(Italics indicate new starter.)

Coach: Bobby Petrino (1st season) (Petrino also coached Louisville from 2003-2006.)

Media prediction: 3rd, Atlantic

All-conference:

2013 1st team: WR DeVante Parker, C Jake Smith, DL Marcus Smith, CB Charles Gaines, S Calvin Pryor, S Hakeem Smith
2013 2nd team: QB Teddy Bridgewater, OG John Miller, DL Lorenzo Brown, LB Preston Brown
2014 preseason: WR DeVante Parker

(Italics indicate departed player.)

Louisville has impeccable timing.  Charlie Strong, brought in from Florida for his first head coaching gig, passed that test with flying colors.  The Cardinals' methodical demolition of the Gators a couple years ago shined the spotlight on them, and they parlayed the publicity into a lifeboat from the second tier of college football.  As Maryland's replacement, they're considered an athletic upgrade, particularly in football.

Last year the Cardinals came within a hair of an undefeated season, and their failure to do so dropped them from the BCS into a bowl that's considered mid-level at best, highlighting the clout (or lack thereof) of the conference they're leaving behind.  Despite bringing back a familiar name to replace Strong (Bobby Petrino, trying to rehab his image after a series of decisions that made him look like a complete ass) Louisville will probably be hard-pressed to repeat their 12-1 standard they set last year.

-- Offense

It's always a challenge to replace a franchise quarterback.  Redshirt sophomore Will Gardner emerged during the spring as the clear choice to step into the shoes left behind by Teddy Bridgewater.  Gardner's game experience is extremely limited, but he stands 6'5" and possesses a strong throwing arm; more importantly, he's got an army of veteran talent supporting him.

Louisville expects a very big season out of senior receiver DeVante Parker, who caught 12 touchdowns last year and led the team with 855 receiving yards as well.  Parker is considered one of the top receivers in the ACC, but he's far from the only senior in the skill-position corps.  The Cardinals also have slippery slot receiver Eli Rogers, and a pair of experienced complementary targets in Kai De La Cruz and Michaelee Harris.  Both can be dangerous when healthy; the problem is, neither has been, Harris in particular.  Harris has a pair of ACL tears on his medical history, and De La Cruz spent most of last year fighting off a hamstring injury.  Tight end Gerald Christian, also a senior, provides some big play ability as well, and is a consistent and dependable passcatcher.

There's also a solid complement of running backs, starting with senior Dominique Brown.  Brown split carries with Senorise Perry last year, but with Perry off to the NFL, Brown could see his workload increase, and push his season yardage total over the 1,000 mark from the 825 he racked up last year.  He's built for the job - Brown is a big, powerful back standing 6'2", 235.  Louisville also boasts a BCS national championship MVP, Michael Dyer, a bowling-ball back who sat 2012 after transferring from Auburn, then missed the second half of last season with injuries.

The line is the picture of stability on the left side.  Jamon Brown has experience at both right and left tackle, starting all of 2012 on the right side before moving to the left last year.  John Miller will be entering his fourth season as the starter at left guard this year.  At center, Jake Smith looks as though he'll return for a second season as the starter in the middle; Smith has experience at guard as well, and moved to center in 2013.  Petrino has considered moving him back to RG, but he looks likely to stick at center.  That makes RG up for grabs, even though Ryan Mack started 12 games there last year.  Mack is the likely frontrunner to keep that job, largely because very few other linemen on the Louisville roster can claim much experience.  The early favorite for right tackle is juco transfer Kelby Johnson - yes, the very same who once looked like a possible heir apparent for that position at UVA.

There aren't too many question marks on this offense - a few, but not big ones.  Uncertain depth on the line and some competitions on the right side, plus, of course, the ability of Gardner to catch up to the responsibilities of his new job under center.  Gardner will have good protection, though, and should have no excuses from his very veteran receiving corps.  Dyer makes for an exciting X-factor for the Louisville offense as well.  Dominique Brown is more than capable of being the workhorse, but Dyer, if he settles down from a fairly troubled college career so far, can give the Cardinals a new wrinkle for the running game.  This offense isn't the very best you'll find in the ACC, but it should keep Louisville in contention most of the season.

-- Defense

Todd Grantham came over from UGA to take over the Louisville defense, bringing the 3-4 scheme with him.  That makes things interesting in Louisville, particularly in the linebacking corps.  Combining some losses to graduation with the new 3-4 scheme means that the linebackers largely consist of converted defensive ends.  Only ILB James Burgess was a true linebacker last season; Burgess is the leading returning tackler with 72.  Lorenzo Mauldin was a full-time starter as a DE last season, and he was a good one, recording 9 sacks and 12 TFL and getting his paws on a few passes too.  This year, Mauldin is the strong-side linebacker, so the role won't be completely unfamiliar as he'll probably spend quite a bit of time with his hand on the ground anyway.

Nick Dawson-Brents, a big, heavy player for a college linebacker at 265 pounds, is another DE convert, now slated to start at ILB.  He'll be pushed hard, though, by Keith Kelsey, who had 24 tackles as a reserve LB last season, his redshirt freshman year.  On the weak side, Louisville figures to use senior Deiontrez Mount, an occasional starter at (you guessed it) DE during the past three years.  Louisville is not without some depth at linebacker, but it's still likely to be a rocky beginning at first.

Up front, Louisville has the big heavies you need for a 3-4 defensive line, but as with linebacker it's a totally reworked unit thanks to several graduations.  320-pound sophomore DeAngelo Brown, who sat last season with an Achilles tear, gets first crack at nose tackle.  Another 300-pounder, Sheldon Rankins, will start off at one of the end spots, while senior B.J. Dubose - who's had a rather up-and-down career - will take the other.  Dubose has shown promise in the past three years but has never been able to break through regularly into the starting lineup until now.  Rankins brings a lot of potential to the table; he had three sacks last year in fairly limited time.  Including 335-pound redshirt freshman Johnny Richardson, who will rotate in at nose tackle, Louisville has the size necessary to succeed up front in the 3-4; they badly lack experience, however, having nobody with any significant number of starts under their belt.

Secondary is still a fluid situation, as - once again - Louisville was hit hard by graduation, this time to the safety corps.  Cornerback is in very good shape, with starters Charles Gaines (5 picks in 2013) and Terrell Floyd (4 picks) both returning.  Floyd is expected to play a very versatile role this year, moving all around the field and playing some safety in addition to his cornerback duties.  Louisville has a pretty good idea who will start at strong safety; Gerod Holliman did a solid job during his apprenticeship last year and is ready for the big-time.  But free safety remains almost totally undetermined for now, hence the expected rotation of the veteran Floyd.

Transition years to brand-new schemes are often a huge challenge; this looks like no exception, particularly with a great deal of uncertainty and guys playing new positions at the all-important linebacker spots.  The line will probably be adequate, since size is sometimes all you need, but safety and linebacker is a really tough combo of positions to have such fluidity.

-- Special teams

John Wallace is a reasonably accurate kicker, but he doesn't have much range; his season long was 43 last year and his career long is 45.  Plus, he's managed to miss six extra points the last two seasons.  Ryan Johnson is a good enough punter, but not a weapon.

-- Outlook

Just looking at the offense, you can see why Louisville is the projected third team in their division conference-within-a-conference.  For one thing, the challengers are not that inspiring, and for another, Parker and Brown command respect for good reason.  If Gardner proves a quick study, the Cardinals will create some major fireworks.  But they could lose games 49-42 just as easily.  The defense doesn't have a single legitimate star; Floyd probably comes closest to that ideal, but there's a risk of spreading him too thin.  The cornerbacks are legit, but the whole rest of the defense outside of perhaps Burgess is going off potential right now, and in some cases, not that high of potential.  The offense plus 11 traffic cones could get this team to bowl eligibility, and the first half of the schedule is not at all intimidating; they'll probably finish it 5-1 or 6-0.  But the likely ceiling here is 9 wins at most.  A 7-9 win season will get them to a decent bowl and a respectable debut in the ACC, but there's a pretty big gap between them and the Coastal's top two, and there's probably an upset waiting for them somewhere.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

2014 season preview: Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets


Schedule:

8/30: Wofford
9/6: @ Tulane
9/13: Georgia Southern
9/20: @ Virginia Tech
9/27: BYE
10/4: Miami
10/11: Duke
10/18: @ North Carolina
10/25: @ Pittsburgh
11/1: Virginia
11/8: NC State
11/15: Clemson
11/22: BYE
11/29: @ Georgia

Skip: Boston College, Florida State, Louisville, NC State, Wake Forest

2013 results:

Elon: W, 70-0
Duke: W, 38-14
North Carolina: W, 28-20
Virginia Tech: L, 17-10
Miami: L, 45-30
BYU: L, 38-20
Syracuse: W, 56-0
Virginia: W, 35-25
Pittsburgh: W, 21-10
Clemson: L, 55-31
Alabama A&M: W, 66-7
Georgia: L, 41-34
Mississippi: L, 25-17 (Music City Bowl)

Record: 7-6 (5-3); 4th, Coastal

Projected starters:

QB: Justin Thomas (rSo.)
BB: Zach Laskey (Sr.)
AB: Synjyn Days (5Sr.)
AB: Tony Zenon (5Sr.)
WR: DeAndre Smelter (Sr.)
WR: Micheal Summers (rSo.)
LT: Chris Griffin (rFr.)
LG: Trey Braun (rJr.)
C: Freddie Burden (rSo.)
RG: Shaq Mason (5Sr.)
RT: Bryan Chamberlain (rJr.)

DE: Roderick Rook-Chungong (rSo.)
NT: Shawn Green (5Sr.)
DT: Adam Gotsis (Jr.)
DE: Tyler Stargel (rSo.)
LB: Quayshawn Nealy (5Sr.)
LB: Tyler Marcordes (rJr.)
CB: Lynn Griffin (rSo.)
CB: D.J. White (Jr.)
NS: Demond Smith (rJr.)
SS: Isaiah Johnson (5Sr.)
FS: Jamal Golden (rJr.)

K: Harrison Butker (So.)
P: Ryan Rodwell (rSo.)

(Italics indicate new starter.)

Coach: Paul Johnson (7th season)

Media prediction: 5th place, Coastal

All-ACC:

2013 1st team: OG Shaq Mason
2013 2nd team: DE Jeremiah Attaochu
2013 3rd team: none
2013 HM: RB Robert Godhigh, RB David Sims
2014 preseason: none

(Italics indicate departed player.)

You have to wonder: is the Paul Johnson era wearing thin at Georgia Tech?  I hate to be that guy, stirring up hot seat stuff, but GT is settling into mediocrity lately.  (Yes, we at UVA would kill for this kind of mediocrity right now.  Shut it.)  For the Jackets over the past few years, it's been a string of middling finishes in the division and third-tier bowls.  This year, with a very, very different starting lineup from last, it'll be a challenge to break that pattern, although the Coastal is still ripe for it.

-- Offense

Vad Lee lasted one year as the GT starting quarterback, then declared "the triple option was never really my thing" and bolted for JMU.  How much truth there was to that rather bizarre proclamation, we'll never know, but the anointed starter under center is now Justin Thomas.  Lee turned out to be not all that good running the triple-option; his passing completion percentage of 45.1% was GT's lowest since Joshua Nesbitt's 37.1% in 2010, and Lee was the first quarterback in GT's triple-option history to average fewer than three yards a carry.  Thomas's numbers in very, very limited time last year were better than Lee's, but sample size matters; he never really had the pressure of making the right decisions every single play.

Thomas will also be working with a patchwork offensive line, a far cry from the upperclassman-filled lineup that GT looked to have before last season.  RG Shaq Mason is the anchor and just about the only one of five starters that GT knows for sure it can count on.  RT Bryan Chamberlain began last season as the starter there, but lost that job when Ray Beno came back from injury to find that LG Trey Braun had Wally Pipped him out of that spot.  Braun's ability to do so should lend some confidence to the interior of the line, at least.  But at left tackle, GT lists a redshirt freshman, Chris Griffin, with redshirt junior Errin Joe backing up both tackle spots.  The redshirt freshman can move ahead of the guy in his fourth year in the program because Joe's tenure has been utterly injury-riddled, and he's played only three games in his career.  And at center, Freddie Burden has leapfrogged Thomas O'Reilly for the job; Burden redshirted 2012 and missed all of 2013 with a knee injury (this is going to be a theme) and has never played a college game.  O'Reilly, a redshirt junior who spent his first year at Auburn redshirting and then sat his transfer year, has played in six.

Running back is a similar tale of lack-of-experience woe.  Only Zach Laskey has any significant amount of carries in his career; the depth chart is loaded with fifth-year seniors who haven't cracked the lineup much.  Players such as Tony Zenon, Synjyn Days, B.J. Bostic, and Matt Connors - all of them fifth-year seniors who've spent their career as lightly-used backups.  It's the kind of situation where it might not look like it, but the door is wide open for a surprise underclassman to impress and pick up carries as the year goes on - perhaps redshirt freshman Donovan Wilson.

Receiver, of course, is not a position destined to rack up gaudy stats at Georgia Tech, unless there's that one big, fast antelope of a guy who can block and get absurdly wide-open when needed.  Defenses are starting to pick up on the idea that they shouldn't have all 11 players crashing the line, and GT hasn't lately managed to find that one guy.  Darren Waller led GT's receivers in yards last year, but Robert Godhigh (a running back) had the team highs, and Waller sits behind sophomore Micheal Summers as of now.  DeAndre Smelter remains projected to start on the other side.  Right now, though, GT lacks a true threat at the position.

This offense, as constituted now, just doesn't impress.  We'll see if Thomas can run the show effectively; it could clear up a lot of concerns.  The line, though, isn't deep at all - it's kind of scary thin, actually, and GT doesn't seem to have the skill-position guys to put any fear into opposing defenses.  There are a lot of unknowns, but the floor is lower than the ceiling is high, here.

-- Defense

That theme of injuries leading to inexperience continues on the defensive line for GT.  Defensive end is a particularly thin position; prospective starter Roderick Rook-Chungong is another third-year player without a single college snap under his belt.  On the other side, Tyler Stargel has indeed played a few games, but the biggest career highlight listed on his bio is "made a tackle against Miami."  Sparingly-used senior Nick Menocal has been moved up from linebacker to provide DE depth.  The story at defensive end for the Jackets is one of frighteningly little depth and practically no experience whatsoever, anywhere.

It gets better when you move inside, but not much.  Three-tech Adam Gotsis is the one real presence on the D-line; Gotsis was a tremendously disruptive player last year and was second on the team in sacks with 5.5.  Nose tackle, at least at first, will be manned by career backup Shawn Green, but he'll likely be pushed hard by redshirt sophomore Patrick Gamble.  But again, experienced depth is nonexistent here.  The D-line is running mainly on Gotsis, who is the only player on the line with any starts, and some hoped-for potential out of the class of redshirt sophomores.  It's not a great situation.

Things get better as you go further back.  Quayshawn Nealy returns to anchor the linebacking corps, small as that is.  GT has made the full flip-flop from Al Groh's 3-4, to a 4-2-5 with an extra "nickel safety."  But Nealy has been a quality starter for three years now, and the other LB spot should be reasonably set with a competition between productive former reserves Tyler Marcordes and Paul Davis.  Davis only started one game last year, but made 41 tackles and recovered a fumble, while Marcordes picked off two passes and returned one 95 yards for a touchdown.

It's hard to say there's depth at safety with a lot of redshirt freshmen showing up on the two-deep, but if the starters can recover from injuries that kept them out last year, the unit should be in good shape.  Demond Smith will start off at the nickel safety spot, playing as a sort-of linebacker; his listed backup is the versatile Domonique Noble, who might be the first on the field no matter which position requires a rotation.  Smith became a starter last year when Jamal Golden went down after three games with a bum shoulder.  Golden steps in at free safety this year, while Isaiah Johnson starts at strong safety.  Johnson is a longtime starter who missed all of 2013 with a knee injury and opted to take the medical redshirt instead of returning near the end of the year.  Technically there's only one returning starter in the safety corps, but things are in much better shape than that sounds.

At cornerback, GT should be able to rotate three pretty experienced players.  Chris Milton started a handful of games at safety last year while D.J. White stepped into the rotation as a true freshman in 2012, and was promoted to a starting role last year.  Lynn Griffin begins the fall as the starter ahead of Milton, after backing up Louis Young last year, but may give way once Milton gets acclimatized to the position.

Overall, this defense looks at least functional.  Damnation with faint praise, somewhat, but it has some legitimate playmakers in Nealy and Gotsis, and the secondary has a chance to be very good, as long as it doesn't catch the injury bug again.  (If it does, GT is in a lot of trouble.)  The defensive line is going to hold this group back, though; outside of Gotsis (and Green, sorta) there's no functional experience at all.

-- Special teams

Harrison Butker won the kicking job from David Scully last year, and was an improvement but still not fully dependable; he hit a 49-yarder and missed a 30-yarder in the same game last year.  Punter Ryan Rodwell redshirted last year after being called on during his true freshman year in 2012, during which he managed a 39.7-yard average - respectable for a true freshman.

-- Outlook

It's rather easy to see why this team was picked only fifth in the Coastal, and puzzling to see them get a first-place vote.  VT's Brenden Motley got a POY vote from a guy who went to high school with him, or something like that, so there's explanations for everything even if they're stupid ones.  GT does not look at all strong in the trenches, and the offense in general has a lot of work to do.  I like what I see at linebacker and I think there's plenty of potential in the secondary that doesn't have far to go, but inexperience plagues the whole offense and almost the entire D-line.  Bowl eligibility could be an uphill climb; GT will likely start the season 3-0, but three more wins may be hard to find.  There'll be no margin for error against teams like UVA and Pitt, because the Jackets won't be favored against teams like VT, Duke, and Miami.  7 wins looks like the ceiling here, with 5 or 6 being the more likely.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

2014 season preview: Florida State Seminoles


Schedule:

8/30: Oklahoma State
9/6: The Citadel
9/13: BYE
9/20: Clemson
9/27: @ NC State
10/4: Wake Forest
10/11: @ Syracuse
10/18: Notre Dame
10/25: BYE
10/30: @ Louisville (Thu.)
11/8: Virginia
11/15: @ Miami
11/22: Boston College
11/29: Florida

Skip: Duke, Georgia Tech, North Carolina, Pittsburgh, Virginia Tech

2013 results:

Pittsburgh: W, 41-13
Nevada: W, 62-7
Bethune-Cookman: W, 54-6
Boston College: W, 48-34
Maryland: W, 63-0
Clemson: W, 51-14
NC State: W, 49-17
Miami: W, 41-14
Wake Forest: W, 59-3
Syracuse: W, 59-3
Idaho: W, 80-14
Florida: W, 37-7
Duke: W, 45-7 (ACC CG)
Auburn: W, 34-31 (BCS CG)

Record: 13-0 (8-0); ACC champion

Projected starters:

QB: Jameis Winston (rSo.)
RB: Karlos Williams (Sr.)
WR: Rashad Greene (Sr.)
WR: Christian Green (5Sr.)
WR: Jarred Haggins (5Sr.)
TE: Nick O'Leary (Sr.)
LT: Cameron Erving (5Sr.)
LG: Josue Matias (Sr.)
C: Austin Barron (Sr.)
RG: Tre Jackson (Sr.)
RT: Bobby Hart (Sr.)

DE: Chris Casher (rSo.)
DT: Eddie Goldman (Jr.)
DT: Nile Lawrence-Stample (rJr.)
DE: Mario Edwards (Jr.)
SLB: Ukeme Eligwe (rSo.)
MLB: Reggie Northrup (Jr.)
WLB: Terrance Smith (rJr.)
CB: Ronald Darby (Jr.)
CB: P.J. Williams (Jr.)
SS: Tyler Hunter (rJr.)
FS: Jalen Ramsey (So.)

K: Roberto Aguayo (rSo.)
P: Cason Beatty (Jr.)

(Italics indicate new starter.)

Coach: Jimbo Fisher (5th season)

Media prediction: 1st, Atlantic; ACC champion

All-ACC:

2013 1st team: QB Jameis Winston, WR Rashad Greene, RB Devonta Freeman, OT Cameron Erving, OG Tre Jackson, C Bryan Stork, CB Lamarcus Joyner
2013 2nd team: TE Nick O'Leary, DT Timmy Jernigan, LB Christian Jones, LB Telvin Smith, S Terrence Brooks, K Roberto Aguayo
2013 3rd team: WR Kelvin Benjamin, OG Josue Matias, DE Mario Edwards, S Nate Andrews
2013 HM: WR Kenny Shaw, WR Bobby Hart, RB James Wilder, CB P.J. Williams,
2014 preseason: QB Jameis Winston, RB Karlos Williams, WR Rashad Greene, TE Nick O'Leary, OT Cameron Erving, OG Tre Jackson, DE Mario Edwards, CB P.J. Williams, K Roberto Aguayo

(Italics indicate departed player.)

Well, these guys did alright last year.  They did so alright that the table of contents of their media guide is on page 20; the first 19 are devoted to showing off.  I guess you can do that when you're the owner of the crystal football.  Truthfully, I think most of the college football world was happy to see it; Florida State might be basically an SEC program in the ACC, but dethroning the actual SEC was good enough.  All the early rankings have them back on top of everything, so, no pressure.

-- Offense

I wrote last year that this group would be tough to stop if Jameis Winston proved a worthy successor to E.J. Manuel.  A guy named Mr. Heisman said he did alright.  So did the offense; FSU rolled up scores in their ACC games normally reserved for I-AA opponents.  They averaged 51 points in conference games.

Winston, of course, is back for more, being only a redshirt sophomore, and is the odds-on favorite to repeat as Heisman winner.  The challenge is replacing his receiving targets.  Rashad Greene was his favorite target last year (76 receptions, 1,128 yards), and Greene returns, as does dangerous tight end Nick O'Leary.  O'Leary is a heck of an athlete for a tight end, and registered a 94-yard reception last year.  The rest of the receiving corps is seeing plenty of turnover.  Listed at the top of the depth chart are fifth-year seniors Jarred Haggins and Christian Green, but Haggins has been injury-prone and Green hasn't been a major factor since 2011, his redshirt freshman year.  A better bet would be on itty-bitty speedsters Kermit Whitfield and Jesus Wilson to start making their marks; Whitfield has already opened eyes as a kick returner with a huge 36.4 yard average in 2013, and two touchdowns.  FSU also brought in two of the top five WR recruits in the country in Ermon Lane and Travis Rudolph, so odds are the underclassmen will be the ones reloading the FSU arsenal this year.

At running back, Karlos Williams was abruptly moved from safety to tailback last season, after the first game, and thrived in his new role.  It seemed a bit presumptuous for the media to pick him for the preseason all-conference team after being a second-stringer last year, but he averaged eight yards a carry and piled up 730 yards.  Five-star freshman Dalvin Cook is likely to see a lot of carries too, and both will thrive behind this offensive line.

That's a line, by the way, that starts five seniors.  Center Austin Barron is the only newcomer to the starting role, after having rotated in for the past three years as a backup.  Guards Tre' Jackson and Josue Matias are each entering their third year as starters, as is left tackle Cameron Erving.  RT Bobby Hart will be in his second starting year.  This is a massive line, with only Barron weighing in at less than 300 pounds, and three of them (Jackson, Matias, and Hart) at 320 or more.  Jackson is the real road grader, topping the nit at 330 pounds.

Behind an offensive line like that, it'd take a lot for this offense not to be a powerhouse.  Winston averaged a first down every time he threw the ball, and tossed 40 touchdowns, so even a sophomore slump would probably place him in the top 10 or 15 quarterbacks in the country.  Lot of starts to replace at the other skill positions, but nobody's crying poverty here.  The replacement pantry is well-stocked.  And lest anyone forget: five seniors on the offensive line.  The offense is primed and loaded to get FSU into the brand-new playoff.

-- Defense

This is without doubt the weaker of the two units.  Not that it's likely to be bad, but it could struggle against the better offenses it faces.  A lot of big names departed, and their replacements aren't sure things.  On the line, DE Mario Edwards and DT Eddie Goldman return as starters; Edwards, as the strong-side DE, carries as much weight as a typical tackle, but his athleticism lets him make plays of all kinds, including the occasional drop-back into pass coverage, and he can command a double-team as well.  Goldman, too, demands a double-team at times, since he weighs in at 320 pounds.  He only managed 19 tackles last year but he can clog up the middle something fierce.

The front-runner to start at the other DT spot is Nile Lawrence-Stample, who would give FSU a pair of 300-pounders in the middle.  The depth and experience in the middle is a questionable, though, partly because FSU keeps bouncing Giorgio Newberry back and forth between DT and TE.  Back at DT for now, he's expect to be the third tackle.  Chris Casher likely has the upper hand on Desmond Hollin for the other starting DE spot, as he's more of a playmaker than the juco transfer Hollin, but both will play.  But, if there's one thing FSU's defense lacked last year it was a consistent pass-rush threat, and they had to scheme their way to many of the sacks they registered.  That looks to be the same this year.

FSU took a beating from graduation at linebacker, where only Terrance Smith returns among starters.  Smith is the leading returning tackler and was fourth on the team last season with 59.  He manned the middle last season but is listed on the weak side this year; the middle has Reggie Northrup now listed as the starter.  Northrup picked up 46 tackles last year despite not starting a game, but he's being pushed hard by E.J. Levenberry.  Ukeme Eligwe looks like the starter for now on the strong side, but that too is written in pencil.

The secondary looks like the most talented unit on defense.  Jalen Ramsey jumped in with both feet last year as a true freshman, starting games at both cornerback and free safety.  The latter is where he's expected to play this year, alongside Tyler Hunter who had a very promising start to the 2013 season before it was cut short by a neck injury.  And of all this talent at safety, it was actually true freshman Nate Andrews, starting just one game, who led the team in INTs with four.  FSU goes an easy three deep at corner, too. Senior Nick Waisome was a full-time starter in 2012, but was bumped to the bench last year in favor of Ronald Darby and P.J. Williams.  Waisome gives FSU experienced depth; not that they need much of it as Darby and Williams are both juniors.  With this much depth in the backfield, FSU figures to spend a lot of time in a nickel package.

Last year this was sort of the anti-Duke defense.  Duke had a bunch of guys with gaudy stats but the defense overall was kinda lousy.  FSU had nobody at all who made you look twice at the stat sheet, but it was one of the best defenses around.  The challenge this year is replacing some highly productive linebackers and figuring out how to keep pressure on opposing QBs.  Plus, they're on their third DC in three years.  When Jeremy Pruitt bolted to take the same job at UGA, the Noles promoted from within, so many of the philosophies and schemes will be the same; still, the constant turnover is less than ideal.  FSU almost always has the better athletes when they take the field, so it's not like this defense is going to crash into the bottom half of the ACC; still, it won't be as strong as last year's unless a lot goes right, and really good offenses might expose them.

-- Special teams

Somehow, the Lou Groza Award winner for top kicker in the country placed on the all-ACC 2nd team.  Either the ACC media isn't too bright, or the Groza people aren't.  (I'm going with the latter, actually - Nate Freese was a perfect 20-for-20 with two from past 50 yards.  The Groza Award is handed out by the probably-geographically-biased Palm Beach County Sports Commission.)

Not that Roberto Aguayo did a bad job - he missed just once all year, going 21-for-22, and as a redshirt freshman at that.  He gives FSU the top returning kicker in the league.  Punter Cason Beatty boosted his average by three yards from 2012 to 2013.  FSU, naturally, also has some of the best return units in the league, with the aforementioned Kermit Whitfield and his 36-yard average.

-- Outlook

This team is the heavy favorite to repeat as ACC champions, and why not?  The offense ought to be explosive again, even if last year's standard will be tough to top.  The defense may have its weaknesses, but that shouldn't be enough to knock them from their perch.  The expectation here is that the Noles claim one of the four spots in the new playoff, likely in the Sugar Bowl.  Anything other than an undefeated season in-conference would be a pretty big upset.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

the recruit: Jarred Reuter

Name: Jarred Reuter
Position: PF
Hometown: Rochester, MA
School: Brewster Academy (NH)
Height: 6'8"
Weight: 235

24/7: 89, three stars; #36 PF, NH #5, US #147
ESPN: 79, three stars; #35 PF, NH #1, East #38
Rivals: three stars
Scout: three stars

Other offers: Iowa, Pittsburgh, Boston College, St. John's, Providence, South Carolina, Rhode Island

This coming season, for the first time in I don't know how long, UVA has a full complement of scholarship players.  And then, only one of them - Darion Atkins - graduates.  This means that for that 2015-2016 season, Tony Bennett could be extremely choosy about whom he extended a scholarship offer to.

Tony sat on those offers for a while, evaluating and evaluating (and truthfully, focusing his efforts mainly on the crucial 2016 class, which is gonna be a really big one), and pulling the trigger on Jarred Reuter near the end of July.  The courtship didn't take long.  Reuter started talking seriously to the UVA coaches around the beginning of the month, and had found his college home scarcely a month later.

Reuter is an interesting story.  First off, he reclassified very early, after his freshman year of high school, and transferred that summer for a fresh start.  (He's since transferred again, but remained in the 2015 class.)  At that time, he was attracting a ton of attention.  Articles from back in 2011, 2012 refer to offers from Indiana and Florida, and IU especially was keeping tabs on him for a long time.  Reuter was headed for the big-time, five stars, Duke, the whole works - that was the feeling then.

This summer, Reuter named a top five of Iowa, Providence, South Carolina, Rhode Island, and UVA.  (That he did so immediately after receiving a UVA offer was a very good sign for the Hoos.)  There are some decent teams there - three of them in the tournament this past year - but it's decidedly not a five-star top five.  What happened?  A few things conspired to leave Reuter in the dust for a while.  First, an injury, which is what compelled him to transfer and reclassify in the first place - his original school required him to play football, and he got hurt doing so.  Second, size, both upwards and outwards.  As a 6'8" freshman, the possibility that he might grow into a 6'10, 6'11" junior was naturally very intriguing.  But instead of adding inches, he added pounds, and not good ones.  By the end of his second freshman year he was up to 250, much of it bad weight that he's since gotten rid of.  Reuter is now basically exactly the same size he was four years ago, though presumably stronger.  Failing to grow is partly what caused some of those early suitors to lose touch.

Here's another thing that's been constant ever since way back when.  Consider the following excerpts from various scouting articles over the past few years:

August 4, 2011 (Rivals): "He has a bullish side. Think a young, yet-to-be refined Tyler Hansbrough."

July 12, 2012 (Rivals): "Watching early videos of Reuter definitely bring memories of Tyler Hansbrough to mind because of the similar size, style and relentless aggression inside the paint."

August 2, 2014 (ESPN): "Reuter's game is similar to that of a poor man's Tyler Hansbrough in that he is a power player inside with a terrific motor."

Just a couple examples there.  There's more where that came from.  OK, so he's Psycho T Jr.  And frankly, it's impossible to miss the theme of physicality in reviewing all the evaluations and articles.  Some of them seem to be trying to outdo each other with flavorful hyperbole, making references to the WWE and knocking heads together and so on and etc.  At that point, you start to get the idea they mean it.  Reuter has also been described as a high-quality passer and screener - and the screener thing is interesting because that, too, has been present in evaluations for a long time, and Reuter himself brought up UVA's screening offense as one reason why he felt like he'd found a fit in Charlottesville.

In terms of a fit on the depth chart, Reuter walks into a crowded situation as a freshman, and may even redshirt.  Mike Tobey and Anthony Gill will be seniors.  So will Evan Nolte, who by then may well have evolved into more of a four than he is now.  Isaiah Wilkins and Jack Salt will have a year under their belt.  Lot of competition, much of it extremely well-entrenched.  (And Tony was up front about this, by the way.)  Afterwards, though, graduation is going to lay a big hit on that depth chart, and Reuter's path will be wide open.  Eight players exist on the future 2016-2017 depth chart (Reuter's sophomore year) and only three of them, Reuter included, are true bigs.

Furthermore, Reuter is likely to be awfully polished by the time he gets here.  The private prep school leagues up in New England are terrifically competitive, and just have a gander at the Brewster Academy roster.  12 players on there, and 10 will be playing D-I basketball.  Georgetown, UCLA, Kansas, Memphis, and so on.  (The only two without a college listed are Reuter and '15 classmate Donovan Mitchell, who is a borderline top-100 prospect and also going to play D-I ball.)  Reuter is already going against some of the very best.

The really fun part is that everyone already thinks that playing UVA is as fun as a root canal.  This has been stamped into the collective consciousness of college hoops.  Welcome to Charlottesville, please check your offense at the door, it will be returned to you on the way out.  Jack Salt already comes with the reputation of a banger. It's been kind of muted because, coming from New Zealand, he's been developing outside the recruiting spotlight, but physical's the word and then some.  In a few years he'll likely be playing alongside Dick Butkus Reuter here, and then we'll go from squeezing the life out of teams to beating it out of them.  Reuter may not ever be a high-powered scoring presence, but if he continues to rebound, do all those semi-invisible things like set screens of crushing death, and leave opponents black and blue in the process, he's likely to be a huge fan favorite when all's said and done.

Monday, August 4, 2014

2014 season preview: Duke Blue Devils


Schedule:

8/30: Elon
9/6: @ Troy
9/13: Kansas
9/20: Tulane
9/27: @ Miami
10/3: BYE
10/11: @ Georgia Tech
10/18: Virginia
10/25: BYE
11/1: @ Pittsburgh
11/8: @ Syracuse
11/15: Virginia Tech
11/20: North Carolina (Thu.)
11/29: Wake Forest

Skip: Boston College, Clemson, Florida State, Louisville, NC State

2013 results:

NC Central: W, 45-0
Memphis: W, 28-14
Georgia Tech: L, 38-14
Pittsburgh: L, 58-55
Troy: W, 38-31
Navy: W, 35-7
Virginia: W, 35-22
Virginia Tech: W, 13-10
NC State: W, 38-20
Miami: W, 48-30
Wake Forest: W, 28-21
North Carolina: W, 27-25
Florida State: L, 45-7 (ACC Championship)
Texas A&M: L, 52-48 (Peach Bowl)

Record: 10-4 (6-2); 1st, Coastal

Projected starters:

QB: Anthony Boone (5Sr.)
RB: Josh Snead (5Sr.)
WR: Jamison Crowder (Sr.)
WR: Max McCaffrey (Jr.)
WR: Issac Blakeney (5Sr.)
TE: Braxton Deaver (5Sr.)
LT: Takoby Cofield (5Sr.)
LG: Lucas Patrick (rJr.)
C: Matt Skura (rJr.)
RG: Laken Tomlinson (5Sr.)
RT: Casey Blaser (rSo.)

DE: Dezmond Johnson (5Sr.)
DT: Jamal Bruce (5Sr.)
DT: Carlos Wray (Jr.)
DE: Jordan DeWalt-Ondijo (5Sr.)
MLB: Kelby Brown (5Sr.)
WLB: David Helton (Sr.)
CB: Bryon Fields (So.)
CB: Breon Borders (So.)
S: DeVon Edwards (rSo.)
S: Jeremy Cash (rJr.)
S: Deondre Singleton (So.)

K: Ross Martin (Jr.)
P: Will Monday (rJr.)

(Italics indicate new starter.)

Coach: David Cutcliffe (7th season)

Media prediction: 2nd, Coastal

All-ACC:

2013 1st team: WR Jamison Crowder, LB Kelby Brown, CB Ross Cockrell, S Jeremy Cash
2013 2nd team: OG Laken Tomlinson, KR Jamison Crowder, DE Kenny Anunike
2013 3rd team: TE Braxton Deaver, OT Perry Simmons, PR DeVon Edwards, P Will Monday
2013 HM: K Ross Martin
2014 preseason: WR Jamison Crowder, OG Laken Tomlinson, LB Kelby Brown, S Jeremy Cash

(Italics indicate departed player.)

If at every opportunity I get to talk about the supremely brilliant prediction I made about Boston College last year, then I guess I also have to dredge up the final lines from last year's Duke preview: "I don't see three ACC wins on their schedule."  We know how that went.

Then again, Duke's presence in the ACC CG was predicted by precisely zero people on the planet.  David Cutcliffe, fresh off Duke's first bowl trip in ages, skipped quite a few steps in the development of a team and brought them (sort of) to the brink of a real live ACC championship.  OK, they got smoked by the future national champions, but, future national champions and all.  Now there's a feeling of arrival in Durham, and people are giving them a healthy amount of respect: the Blue Devils were second by just a nose in preseason ACC voting.  They're considered as strong a contender as anyone to get back to that title game.

-- Offense

The media will usually give you a boost in their voting if you have a quarterback they know and like, and Anthony Boone fits the bill.  With backup QB Brandon Connette transferring due to family issues, Duke will lean heavily on Boone, as he's now backed up by a whole string of guys who've never played.  Boone didn't quite blow the world away last year, as he mixed in some awful clunkers in his game log, but he's a legitimate dual threat with a solid arm, and, never underestimate the value of a fifth-year senior under center.

The real star of the offense, though, is receiver Jamison Crowder, who can break the ACC records for receptions and yards with a big season this year - though it doesn't have to be as big as last year when he recorded 1,360 yards on 108 catches.  Crowder isn't your typical ace receiver - he stands just 5'9", but he's a ridiculously difficult cover nonetheless.  Duke's next-biggest pass-catching threat is TE Braxton Deaver, who finally came into his own last year after an injury-filled 2012.  Max McCaffrey is a dependable possession guy who plays on the outside opposite Crowder, and an interesting platoon is being set up in the slot, where 6'6" senior Issac Blakeney is being pushed by 5'7" sophomore Ryan Smith.

The running back rotation took a hit last winter when second-leading rusher Jela Duncan was suspended for two semesters, which includes this coming season, for academic reasons.  Duncan split carries at the top of the depth chart with Josh Snead last season, and Snead averaged over six yards a carry, so Duke isn't hurting too badly here.  Though, it's actually junior Shaquille Powell who's listed atop the pre-fall depth chart; Powell did a solid job in Duke's second tier of backs, averaging 5.5 a carry on a little over 60 chances.

The offensive line is once again a strong foundation for this offense.  The unit is led by RG Laken Tomlinson, entering his fourth year as a full-time starter, and LT Takoby Cofield, entering his third.  Tomlinson is a huge, 330-pound mauler and one of the best offensive guards in the country.  At the all-important center position, Matt Skura was given the job out of last summer and held it down all season, giving Duke three returning starters on the line.  Lucas Patrick is expected to take over at left guard after starting the bowl game last year against Texas A&M, leaving just one uncertain spot on the line: right tackle.  Here, the competition, at least initially, will be betweenr redshirt sophomores Casey Blaser and Tanner Stone, who have a combined 17 snaps in their careers - all belonging to Blaser.

Despite that one small hiccup, the Duke line ought to be among the stronger ones in the league, and there's little reason to expect any regression from this offense.  They're able to rotate freely at the tailback position, keeping their legs fresh, and Crowder is one of the league's top weapons.  Combined with Cutcliffe's smarts and occasional mad science on offense, it'll take quite an effort for any defense to stop the Blue Devils this year.

-- Defense

Despite eating some words last year on this subject, I'm still not fully convinced when it comes to Duke's defense.  They certainly have some stars, pre-eminently linebacker Kelby Brown, a tremendous weapon against the run (11 TFLs in 2013) who's also much more than adequate against the pass.  Brown is joined in the linebacking corps by David Helton, who seized a starting position last year from C.J. France and never let it go - Helton was the team's leading tackler with 133.

With France and Deion Williams, both of whom played respectably as reserves, Duke has more depth at linebacker than they did in the past, but still operates mainly out of a 4-2-5 nickel defense.  They started two freshmen at safety last year, DeVon Edwards and Deondre Singleton, and both acquitted themselves very well.  Singleton did so as a true freshman, but it's Edwards who ought to be watched closely, as he not only picked off three passes last year but was also a top-flight kick returner.  The star of the secondary, though, is do-everything safety Jeremy Cash, who had 121 tackes (9.5 for loss) and picked off four passes in 2013.  Finally, at cornerback, Duke will start another pair of sophomores in Bryon Fields and Breon Borders.  Both are moving up from reserve roles last season, but that didn't stop Borders from intercepting four passes; both have enough experience that Duke should be able to rely on them without much worry.

Up front is where Duke has most of their question marks.  Duke graduated a pair of productive defensive ends, and may struggle to replace them.  Listed as starters are Dezmond Johnson and Jordan DeWalt-Ondijo, a pair of fifth-year seniors and career reserves.  Their backups are Kyler Brown and Jonathan Jones - again, career backups, though injuries forced them both out of a few games last season, during which they should've been taking significant steps forward in their development.  Either could play their way into the starting lineup, but that's partly a function of having relatively unimpressive starters.  In the middle, the news is a little better: Jamal Bruce is a returning full-time starter, and while Carlos Wray technically isn't, he played as much in the rotation as a starter would anyway.  Both were solidly productive last year for defensive tackles, though neither made a major name for themselves either.

Players like Cash, Kelby Brown, Helton, and up-and-comers like Edwards and Borders, should lend a sense of legitimacy to this defense, and the back seven has plenty of quality, even above-average players.  But even with such players - as well as now-departed stars like Ross Cockrell and Kenny Anunike - Duke's defense was deep in the bottom half of the league last year both against the pass and the run.  The back seven should be improved with a ton of returning starters and another year of experience under their belts, but the front four is cause for concern.  Duke will need some surprises up front, I think, in order to maintain the W/L success from last year.

-- Special teams

Duke has some of the best in the league here.  They use Jamison Crowder on punt returns, and he rewarded them last season with a 16-yard average.  DeVon Edwards topped 30 yards on average in kick return duty.  Ross Martin took a bit of a step backwards in the accuracy department last year, but he's still considered a highly dependable kicker, and Will Monday is a strong-legged punter who could have the NFL in his future.

-- Outlook

Can Duke make it back to the championship game?  That's going to be the big question for the year.  The offense is certainly a capable unit, and even brings some flash and star power to the table now, enough to hold their own against most any team in the conference.  The defense, though - well, it'd be hard for me to have a lower outlook on them than I did last year, and I don't still think that lowly of the unit.  But it's also hard to ignore that even in a year where they placed four starters on various all-ACC teams, the bottom line (for which I use yards per play) wasn't all that good.  I think the defense will cause a slight regression to the mean in the win column for Duke.  Do they go bowling?  Sure, easily.  They still have an OOC schedule totally lacking in games of interest, and they play in the wide-open Coastal.  But they won several close ones in the ACC last year and can't be expected to win them all again this year.  The good news is they skip anyone of note in the Atlantic - no FSU, no Clemson, no Louisville - but if they do make a repeat trip to the ACCCG, it'll be thanks to some surprises on defense and, likely enough, a healthy dose of tiebreakers.  Otherwise I think this is more of an eight-win squad when all's said and done - seven if they didn't play a chicken schedule in the OOC.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

the recruit: Nick Johns

Name: Nick Johns
Position: QB
Hometown: Washington, DC
School: Gonzaga
Height: 6'3"
Weight: 220

24/7: 86, three stars; #21 P-QB, DC #6
ESPN: 78, three stars; #31 P-QB, DC #7, East #79
Rivals: 5.7, three stars; #17 P-QB, DC #4
Scout: three stars; #27 QB

Other offers: Maryland, NC State

UVA whiffed, and whiffed badly, in recruiting the so-called DMV hotbed in 2014.  Unless you count Purcellville and Fredericksburg as part of the region - quite a stretch, really - the first commitment from the area came in January, and that was Cory Jones, a two-star flipped from Toledo.  UVA's recruiting efforts were a near-total failure in what should be a pipeline the size of the Trans-Alaska.

Mike London got an early start on reversing that this year, with a springtime commitment from a top WCAC program.  The WCAC - which includes Good Counsel and DeMatha - is an extremely high-profile league, to the extent that any commitment to any school east of the Mississippi gets fans of that school boasting about "establishing a pipeline."  It's generally not easy to pull anyone out of there because you're constantly fighting off the sharks.

Nick Johns is quarterback at a Gonzaga program that's moved past "up-and-coming" stage and has turned what used to be a big two in that league into a big three.  There were a lot more schools "showing interest" than actually offering, because round about the time you might start to offer a talented quarterback from a high-profile school (which is to say, his junior season) Johns broke his collarbone.  UVA extended their offer in the summer of 2013, and the only other school to make a serious push was Maryland, who would certainly have had plenty of familiarity with him.  (NC State offered too, in March, but that didn't go far.)  A fair amount of big names were testing the waters here too, but wanted to see Johns in person before taking the plunge.

Johns is unequivocally a pro-style passer with good size at 6'3", and ESPN even lists him at 6'4".  He plays with good polish already - he hit the camp circuit hard in the spring and Rivals often mentioned his arm strength and "ability to make all the throws," particularly on sideline routes.  His mobility is good for his size; he's definitely not going to be confused with a dual-threat quarterback, but he's got good pocket mobility.  His highlight tapes have a larger number than you'd expect of escape throws.  Elite arm strength isn't quite there; the phrase that comes to mind is "good enough."  ESPN called him "a slight pusher" and this is borne out in those highlight tapes: his release point is a little bit odd, probably a bit early and behind where it should be.  His arm strength will appear to improve if he can learn to release the ball a little later and more out ahead of his body, extending a his arm a touch more, and keep his accuracy the same.

In the big-picture intro post, I wrote that neither taking a quarterback or not taking a quarterback would surprise me, and then brought up Johns as the kind of name who'd be good enough that the coaches would take a QB despite already having five.  UVA will now go into 2015 with six on the roster if there's no attrition, which is a lot but is also fine by me, as I've at times lamented the fact that we have never had a decent QB conveyor belt going.  We could reverse that trend if Greyson Lambert turns out to be the real deal this year; we'll have the depth to make it happen especially if Corwin Cutler redshirts.  Taking a quarterback in every recruiting class is not at all a bad policy, and if you find one you like and can zero in on, you absolutely do it.

This is a roundabout way of saying that Johns won't be needed in 2015 or even 2016 unless a coaching change nukes the depth chart.  In the best-case scenario, Lambert will be a three-year starter and graduate after 2016, which would be Johns's redshirt freshman season.  Cutler would be a redshirt junior by then with two years to make his mark, and only then would Johns pop up on the conveyor belt.  That's how it works with good programs.

We'll also have to consider competition from later recruiting classes.  Johns is sort of in a limbo world in the recruiting rankings - lower-ranked guys usually look like they're headed for clipboard central, and it usually takes a higher ranking to be called the Future Of The Program.  Johns, having been to a lot of camps, has managed to earn very consistent rankings from the gurus, and I think his offers and interest also line up with those rankings too - they're just about what you'd expect given what he's shown so far and the collarbone injury.  Based on the evidence so far, we have a pretty good picture of Johns from the tools that are supposed to give us these pictures.  A good season this year, which is very possible as he's surrounded by a lot of talent, could conceivably give him a fourth star.  (It might also attract vultures should the coaching transition come to pass - as a quarterback, in the WCAC no less, Johns should be considered a much higher risk than the average recruit to see extra attention.)  But if the best case is Johns hopping the conveyor belt, the worst (obviously besides him leaving at some point) is that he provides a solid option and a blanket of security during the same kind of turbulent times the program has already seen at QB for the past decade.